By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The House late on Wednesday passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act by a vote of 260 to 165, passing legislation that has strong backing from most agricultural groups, but is opposed by the American Farm Bureau Federation and conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation.
The 260 members who voted for it included 226 Democrats and 34 Republicans, while 161 Republicans, three Democrats and one independent voted against it and one Democrat voted present.
The bill, which would ease immigration for agricultural workers, won the support of more than 300 farm groups and the United Farm Workers. The National Milk Producers Federation praised the bill as an opportunity to alleviate some of the labor pressures facing dairy farmers.
"The urgency to reform the agricultural labor system cannot be overstated for dairy farmers," said Mike McCloskey, dairy farmer and chair of NMPF's Immigration Task Force. "Today, House members on a bipartisan basis showed us that they are taking our labor crisis seriously. We will use this momentum to work with the Senate to build consensus in drafting an improved bill that further addresses dairy's workforce needs."
While the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and the California Farm Bureau support the legislation, the American Farm Bureau Federation opposes it, arguing the bill would lead to higher wages for farmworkers and make farm employers legally vulnerable.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, who has made agricultural labor a top priority, still said Farm Bureau is disappointed that the that House leaders blocked attempts to amend the legislation. "Several amendments addressed our principal concerns, but were blocked from consideration. As a result, we do not support the final bill passed by the House today," Duvall said. "We will turn our attention to the Senate where we hope legislation is crafted that provides long-term solutions to the farm labor crisis. Farmers need meaningful reform that addresses the concerns of both workers and growers."
Yet, Western Growers, a group that represents major fruit and vegetable growers in California, Arizona and other western states, gave Wednesday's vote a strong endorsement. Tom Nassif, Western Growers president and CEO, stated that the bill is not perfect, but the need to ensure a reliable and skilled agricultural workforce is critical to the industry. Nassif said the Senate and President Trump "must be willing to take the political stand that is required to ensure the continued production of an abundant, safe and affordable domestic food supply. Our farmers are depending on the present actions of Congress and the Administration to make possible the future viability of the agriculture industry."
The bill would give "blue cards" to agricultural workers who have worked at least 180 days on farms over the past two years. They would become eligible for five-year renewable visas that would require working at least 100 days each year in agriculture. Those workers would later on be given the option to earn permanent legal status but must have at least 14 years of work history in agriculture before they can apply.
The bill would make several changes to the H-2A program that include giving farmer employers more options to stagger labor needs in the application process and create a single filing process with the multiple agencies involved in bringing in guest workers.
For dairy farmers and others who need full-time workers, the bill would dedicate 40,000 green cards per year for agricultural workers. The bill would also create a new program for temporary workers that can last up to three years. The program would have a cap that could be lifted if market conditions warrant it.
One sticking point both the agribusinesses and union were able to compromise on involved the adverse wage rate for guest workers. The way the current scale workers, some areas of the country can see agricultural wages increase as much as 25% in a year in the labor rate for guest workers. The wage formula would remain in place, but it would set a wage freeze in place for one year. The wage increase for guest workers would be limited to at most 3.25% per year, unless the resulting wage is less than 110% of the federal or state minimum wage. Then the wage could go up an additional 1%.
Heritage Action for America urged members to vote against the bill because it would allow current agricultural workers to stay in the United States even if they had arrived without legal papers.
"Unfortunately, this bill grants amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants without doing anything to reform our broken immigration system," Heritage said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noted at a news conference after the vote that she does not usually vote on legislation except to break a tie but that she voted on the bill because "it was too close to the heart."
At the news conference, the West Coast leadership on the bill was clear, although House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., also appeared to praise it.
"Our bill offers stability for American farms by providing a path to legal status for farmworkers," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the House Judiciary subcommittee chairwoman in charge of immigration and the lead sponsor of the bill. "In addition, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act addresses the nation's future labor needs by modernizing an outdated system for temporary workers, while ensuring fair wages and workplace conditions. I urge the Senate to follow the House's lead and swiftly pass the first-of-its-kind bipartisan immigration compromise in decades that improves America's agricultural labor programs and laws."
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., the Republican co-sponsor, said, "Creating a legal and reliable workforce for American agriculture has been one of my highest priorities since coming to Congress. Our farmers and ranchers facing a labor crisis need relief, and the men and women who contribute to our nation's agriculture industry need certainty. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is the first step. This bill is our opportunity to finally provide stability to America's farms and a significant improvement over the status quo. I am grateful to Rep. Lofgren, our bipartisan coalition, and all of the agriculture and labor groups who helped draft the bill, and I encourage input from my colleagues as we continue working to improve this legislation in the Senate."
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said that if the American people could have watched the process they would have felt "encouraged" that there could be bipartisan agreement. LaMalfa, a rice farmer, said that access to immigrant workers is "so important for those high-value crops" in California.
Lofgren noted that both Arturo Rodriguez, the president emeritus of the United Farm Workers, and Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, which represents fruit, vegetable and tree-nut farmers in the West, had traveled to Washington for the vote.
Rodriguez said the day was "a milestone" because it was the first time in decades that the House under either party had passed an agricultural immigration bill. Rodriguez said the bill will bring stability to both the agriculture industry and the workforce.
Nassif said that one of the reasons that the bill passed was that it is based on "the mutual respect" between the farmers and farmworkers.
Lofgren also noted that National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President Chuck Conner had played a major role in establishing national support for the bill. Prospects for the bill in the Senate and with President Donald Trump are considered problematic at best, but Conner told DTN in an email late Wednesday, "We look forward to working with the Senate as its members develop their legislation to solve this long-running issue impacting farmers. While many are skeptical of the chances in the Senate, many of these same folks said the same thing about getting a bipartisan bill through the House. Fixing the broken ag immigration system unites a broad cross-section of farmers and ranchers, and agriculture's track record is pretty strong when the sector works together."
Chris Clayton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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